I recently read that an English professional football team has a resident psychotherapist. Whilst the connection between clinical psychology and sporting outcomes is well established, having a team psychotherapist is something new. The therapist explained that they’re there to support the players, coaches and a team of staff through the emotional highs and lows of the professional game. Scoring goals isn’t the sole focus of the role, but it’s hoped that a happy and supported team will be more likely to score.
I read this not from a football supporter’s perspective, but from that of a therapist who is always mindful of how we engage with clients, especially men. There is no secret that men are less likely than women to engage with psychological services. Men are also more likely to hold gender based beliefs as to why they shouldn’t be sensitive to their own mental health.
The football team therapist spoke of how the engagement with players was less formal that traditional psychotherapy and could be anything from a few minutes chat to a longer session. It seems that being understanding and sensitive to the schedules of the players and being flexible around this, worked best for all parties.
Debating changing styles of therapy is a whole other discussion but it does make me question how greater engagement with men might be based on challenging concepts of masculinity whilst not taking men out of their own understood gender roles. In effect to reframe masculinity in a way that still feels masculine.
As a trainee therapist being in your own therapy is a requirement. The experience of being a client is something that shapes how we are as practitioners. The understanding of what it’s like to explore your own mind and how you can gain a deeper understanding of yourself can feel like a huge luxury. It can also feel like the most anxiety inducing and impossible task when you feel your own vulnerability in the face of another. As a trainee male practitioner this was the moment when I began to understand that I held many gendered views of what men did and didn’t do and how could I shift my perceptions without losing my own sense of my gender.
As therapists we are well aware of the challenges when clients begin to explore and think about their feelings. Knowing how that can feel for us we can empathise and think with them. When this is seen through a series of deeply held beliefs around gendered roles it can feel impossible. Here a myriad of gendered terms about ‘men not crying’ and being a ‘strong, silent type’ spring to mind. Is it any wonder that men can struggle to acknowledge, let alone engage with thoughts about mental health when there is so much messaging that it isn’t ‘masculine’?
Reading about a football club with a psychotherapist felt very positive. It wasn’t only an interesting article, but it very gently reminds us that attitudes towards men’s mental health, are changing. If the knowledge that a football team are supported and as a result successful by being sensitive to their own mental health it sends a subtle, yet positive, message. This can only be a good thing for helping men to think that being aware of their own mental health is not challenging their sense of their own masculinity, it is merely offering a different perspective.
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Further reading by David Work –